I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here*

Rags to RichesMost of us have probably imagined what it would be like. The official letter from the attorney’s office informing you that you’ve inherited millions. Or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime lottery win. Or maybe meeting that perfect someone who’s also really wealthy. However it actually happens, the ‘rags to riches’ dream captures people’s imaginations. I’m sure we could all think of films and books in which that’s the main plot point.

It shows up in crime fiction, too. But of course, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, despite the fantasy. The ‘rags to riches’ phenomenon is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include this plot point. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s had a very modest life in the village of St. Mary Mead for ten years, where she’s been paid companion to Mrs. Harfield. When her employer dies, Katherine gets the exciting and surprising news that she’s been named as sole heir to Mrs. Harfield’s considerable fortune. She’s now going to be quite a wealthy woman, and things begin to change immediately for her. In one amusing scene, for instance, she gets a letter from a Harfield cousin, who tries to persuade and then bully her into parting with the money. Then, she gets a letter from one of her own distant relatives Lady Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Rosalie has found out about her cousin’s good fortune and suddenly decides that it might be nice to have her visit. Katherine is no fool, and knows exactly what Lady Rosalie has in mind. But she has always wanted to travel, so she arranges to go from London to Nice, where Lady Rosalie lives, on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on her way to meet her lover Armand de la Roche. The two end up having a long conversation, so when Ruth is murdered, the police want whatever information Katherine can provide. Hercule Poirot is on the Blue Train as well, so he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new business partner Beau Rummell set up a private investigation firm. One of their first clients is wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and hasn’t established bonds with anyone in his family. He wants Queen and Rummell to track down his relations so that they’ll be in a position to inherit when he dies. Then, Queen becomes ill, so Rummell has to take on the ‘legwork.’ He follows the trail to Hollywood, where Kerrie Shawn is an aspiring actress. She hasn’t had much success though, and shares a dingy place with her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day. Word comes that Cole has died, and Rummell gets the distinct pleasure of telling Kerrie that she is set to inherit a large fortune. Cole’s will stipulates that she and the other heir, Margo Cole, must share his home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit, so she and Vi move to the house. As you can imagine, trouble soon begins, since such a large amount of money is at stake. Then, Margo is shot and Kerrie becomes a suspect. By this time Rummell has fallen in love with her, so he wants to clear her name. If he does, it’ll be a real case of ‘rags to riches’ for both of them.

When Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series begins, her sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is trying to get his life back together. He’s a former big-city crime reporter and author who’s hit some hard times and gotten far too familiar with the bottle. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he gets a chance to start over when his former boss Arch Riker hires him as a features writer for the Daily Fluxion. At first, he lives the sort of paycheck-to-paycheck existence that you might expect. A bit later in the series (The Cat Who Played Brahms has the details) Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s friend Francesca ‘Fanny’ Klingenschoen. The only proviso is that in order to inherit, Qwill must live in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ for five years. If he chooses not to do that, the fortune passes to Atlantic City. When word gets around that Qwill is set to inherit so much money, there’s resentment at first, since many of the locals were hoping the money would be used in the town. But they’re even more upset at the thought of having all of that money go to Atlantic City. As fans know, Qwill finds a way to make it work. He’s not comfortable with vast wealth anyway, so he remains in Pickax and sets up a charitable fund, the Klingenschoen Foundation, that supports many town projects. And that still leaves him with more money than he could ever need.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, readers are introduced to Jodie Evans. She’s been brought up, as the saying goes, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ near Sydney. Her home life is not good, and she would like very much to get free of it and out of poverty. Her first chance comes when she does well enough in school to get a scholarship to an upmarket secondary school. Then later, she meets Angus Garrow, an up-and-coming law student from a ‘blue blood’ family. He falls in love with her and the two marry, very much against the wishes of his mother, who was hoping he’d choose someone from his own social class. For a long time, it seems that Jodie has successfully gone from ‘rags to riches.’ She and Angus remain married and she has two healthy children. There’s certainly a difference between her perspective and that of her new social circle, but she’s learned to fit in. Then everything changes. Her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child โ€“ a girl she named Elsa Mary. No-one knows about the child, not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie says she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption, but when the extra-vigilant nurse does some checking, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked, first privately and then very publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As the story spreads, Jodie becomes a social pariah to the well-off people she’s been living among for so long, and she learns who her real friends are.

Even winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a great way to go from ‘rags to riches.’ Just ask Waldemar Leverkuhn, whom we meet in Hรฅkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. After a lifetime of working for a living, he and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. He goes out with those friends to celebrate; but later that night, he is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate. When they learn about the lottery ticket, one of their questions is whether someone was anxious to keep Leverkuhn’s winnings. The truth is more complicated than that, but it goes to show that riches can’t always protect you.

There’s just something about the ‘rags to riches’ fantasy. I’m sure you can think of lots of good examples of it that I’ve not included here. Just as well, as I’ve got to see what’s in this letter. You never know…

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Hรฅkan Nesser, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wendy James

14 responses to “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here*

  1. Keishon

    OT somewhat: In A Simple Plan they didn’t win any lottery but found a boatload of money and tried to hide it. Same for No Country for Old Men, money found and stolen from some drug dealers. I know your post highlights a lot of stories about people winning money but I love it when the conflict revolves around cash landing in the wrong hands. :-); and then we watch good people do whatever it takes to keep it. Greed seems to bring out the worst in people. Sorry to go off on a tangent there, Margot.

    • Don’t be, Keishon. Tangents are interesting. And it is fascinating to think about what happens when money gets into certain hands. What’s going to happen? Will the ‘right people’ get the money back? What happens if they don’t? It’s all interesting..

  2. Margot: In real life Canada there are firms that search for heirs of estates who the executors have been unable to find on their own. When the searchers find a beneficiary they send a letter to them offering to provide them with information to claim the legacy if they sign a contract giving a percentage, usually a third, to the searchers. I have known people who received such letters. Emotions race through them. Who could it be? How much is involved? Why should I give up a third? Is my life about to change? Why does someone have to search for me? Is it real or some elaborate scam?

    • Bill – Oh, that’s interesting! I could well imagine the questions one would have if one got a letter like that. And I’m sure too that although there are bona fide businesspeople among those companies, there are also predators too. It’s a real risk. There are probably similar kinds of companies in the US, but to be honest, I’ve yet to receive my letter from any of them…

  3. So interesting that you mentioned this type of plot as I just finished a book, THE BODY VANISHES, in which it is used but very naughtily the authors kept this away from the reader until the inspectors does his summing up – so for once it was not an obvious motivating factor (until the end) – not fair play but unusual at least ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Christie certainly liked an inheritance plotline – it’s the key to so many of her plots. But I’m going to pick on Miss Marple, inheriting money from a grateful friend – it’s just a sideline in the book (I think it’s the end of Nemesis?), but I love it that her lawyer and nephew are advising her to invest it carefully, keep it by for a rainy day. But Miss Marple isn’t having any of it – she says firmly that she’s old, and has no dependents, and she’s going to spend it on treats for herself for as long as she lives. And the readers are all cheering at that I think…

    • Moira – Oh, that is a fun side-plot, isn’t it? I think you’re right that a lot of people probably did cheer Miss Marple on. Oh, and good memory – Nemesis it is ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. kathy d.

    I want to read Hakan Nesser’s book on the lottery, but haven’t had a chance to read it or his other recent books. Where does the time go?
    Honestly, if I had enough money for rent and other necessities, including dental work, my nemesis, and inherited money, I’d give it to food pantries to feed the hungry, groups that help the homeless, that provide free medical and dental care, that aid people with Ebola in West Africa and that give children books in areas of the world where books are rare, especially for young people.
    It wouldn’t mean anything to me to have that kind of money unless I gave it to those in need. There is too much suffering and deprivation in the world and right in my city whwere about 1 1/2 million people need food stamps and help at soup kitchens and food pantries.
    Why have money if one can pay for necessities and some extras, like travel, if others are so deprived? I couldn’t live like that.
    But it makes for a great mystery motivation — to finagle to win a lottery unfairly, to steal it or plan to do so, to commit murder to get the loot.

    • Kathy – I know what you mean. There are so very many people who need that money. And their needs are far greater than the desire for a hot new sports care, designer clothes, etc… As you say though, it does make for a terrific mystery plot when someone suddenly inherits or gets a lot of money…

  6. This post reminds me to get back to reading the Hakan Nesser books. and the Wendy James book sounds good too. Thanks for the reminders, Margot.

  7. Margot – a little “rags to riches” would go done well at the moment ๐Ÿ™‚ As long as no bad will came with it ๐Ÿ™‚

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